Wednesday, October 28, 2015

MY AFTERSCHOOL JOB



I noticed her during pre-calc, a pale girl in a gray dress hanging around, peeping through the classroom window trying to catch my eye. I swore to myself and stared doggedly forward, trying to pay attention. The bell rang and I finally met her glance. She smiled, thin as a moon beam and I felt the familiar pang of sympathy. I knew I was going to spend my night helping her rather than sleeping.

I waved at her.  “Okay, okay.”

The kid at the desk next to mine looked at me, looked out the window and back.

“Nut-job,” he sneered loud enough for me to hear but I ignored him. Jackass. I turned off my tablet, gathered up my stuff and shuffled through the crowded halls, thick with the smells of body odor, too much cologne and government-issue disinfectant. Everyone ignored me. Mostly because they're half-terrified I'm going to crack and attack them (Yay for everyone knowing you've been to a Psychologist for hearing voices!) or because I'm a lower life form unworthy of their notice.

Ah high school. These are truly the best days of our lives. Seriously, if that were the case I'd jump off a cliff right now. I cannot wait to get out of here.

I found the pale girl lurking between the mobiles where the grass hadn’t quite been trampled down to bare earth. Most of the other kids had already left the area when I found her, so we had a little privacy. She looked only a little older than I was, maybe eighteen or nineteen. Her hair hung in rumpled ringlets and her threadbare gray dress seemed suspended from rather than worn on her bony body.

"You're the Realtor?" she asked. "Mordecai said you could help me."

Oh God. That guy. Talk about a picky customer. I still have nightmares about him.

“Yeah,” I said. It wasn’t my nicest opener but I was feeling put out again. "I take it you need a new place?"

“I got kicked out of my old one.”

Half my job is this emergency crap. It annoys the heck out of me because it's usually so avoidable.
“Really? Just out of the blue?"

She nodded. 

"You weren’t causing any trouble. No moaning or groaning or messing with stuff that didn’t belong to you? Your housemates just suddenly up and booted you?”

She opened her mouth to protest but I gave her my best “mom” look, the one that says "If you lie I'll know and then I'll be really pissed." I must have pulled it off because she dropped her head to look down at the scuffed buckles on her shoes.

“I didn’t mean to cause any trouble. I was just… bored. And it was rather funny.”

I tried to suppress my smile. If I was invisible I might get off on freaking out people too. Her gray dress stirred on a breeze I couldn't feel. As I watched her looking so pathetic that familiar pang of sympathy returned. Some times I really am a sucker for a hard luck case. Maybe it was her fault she had been kicked out of her place. Maybe it wasn't. But it sure wasn’t her fault she was stuck haunting the same thousand square feet of land until whatever unstated laws of the afterlife determined she could move on.

“At least tell me your anchor isn’t in their friggin’ crawlspace.”

With my skeleton key it's easy enough to get in and out of places. Perk of the job. But getting all the way down into a crawl space or up into an attic to recover some bit of bone or locket (it's always a locket for some reason) without anyone noticing is tricky. I could wait until no one's around, but that's always dicey. A ghost can only survive so long once it's been driven from its anchor. We were already on the clock.

“No,” the girl said with a smile. “It actually got churned up when they planted their roses. I can show you right where it is. You won't even have to go into the house.”

“Great, that’ll be easy enough. Once we’ve got that we’ll have all the time in the world to find something new.”

"Thank you, Lucy," the ghost girl said.

I smiled. "You're welcome. And don't worry. We'll find you a new place you'll be happy in for a long time."


We headed towards where I'd locked up my bike. My mind was already in high gear. Get the anchor on my way home. Homework, dinner, then back out to start showing properties. There was a new development on the north-east part of town that was still largely under construction and unoccupied. They had some great floor plans and it would take decades for people to start thinking “ghost” when things went bump in the night. No one would notice us looking around either. More accurately they wouldn't notice me. It takes a special person to see ghosts.

Some time's I hate being that person. Some times it's really fulfilling. Other time's its just a huge pain in the butt. I guess it all comes with the job, but then so does the commission. And I could already taste mine.

~SJA

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Martian - Book Review

From the Publisher: Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars.

Now, he's sure he'll be the first person to die there.

After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive—and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive.

Chances are, though, he won't have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old "human error" are much more likely to kill him first.

But Mark isn't ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills—and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit—he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?


I'm going to be honest. I only picked up Andy Weir's The Martian because enough of my friends AND the Amazon algorithm god recommended it. I'm not usually one for hard science fiction as they tend to be dull and entirely too introspective for my tastes.  I'm pleased to say, The Martian is neither. I devoured the entire book in just a few days and I highly recommend it, but it is not without its short comings.


The book is extremely well written. Weir's voice and writing style (a mixture of first person, third person, chat transcripts and miscellaneous reports) are marvelously unique. The Martian doesn't sound like every other book, and that makes it positively refreshing. In addition, there's a great bent of sarcastic humor throughout that keeps you chuckling and turning pages as things get worse and worse for Mark Watney.

Although much of the tech is a figment of Andy Weir's imagination it's so firmly grounded in reality that you're never jarred out of the story by any of it. There's never that laser cutter, or robot that is so conspicously science-fiction as to make you start wondering why and how exactly it's there. The characters are extremely believable too. They react the way they should, and the way you want them to. They panic. They break down. They pull it back together. It's great.

Where the book falls short is in just three places in my opinion.

First, there's a lot of math.  You heard me. A lot. We regularly are treated to large passages which basically are word problems the author talks through. I have X number of X available to create X number of a resource I require. Or, I have X number of resource and X number of days it must last, equaling X number of resources used per day. It's not a big deal and at first it's interesting. But after a while it becomes easy to start skipping.

Second, and I don't want to give anything away, but this is a story of Man vs. Environment which if you're not familiar with the means: man has problem. He deals with it. Some random event causes a new problem or aggravates the old one. Repeat until rescued or hero dies. The Martian is no exception to the rule. There's just no relief, no true success which became frustrating for me. After a while I found myself just sort of grudgingly resigned to the fact that even though the latest problem was solved another worse problem would soon appear.

The third, and perhaps most egregious of The Martian's few sins occurs at the end of the book. I'll try to keep things vague to avoid spoilers. Basically, the conclusion of the book, the climax everything has built towards, is taken out of Mark Watney's hands. I felt cheated. In a book, ENTIRELY about taking control of one's situation, stripping away the Hero's Choice in the final chapters is a huge let down. The author must have recognized this on some level because he tries to build in a Hero's Choice moment but we've jumped over to different characters, and Mark is left to face random chance alone, while we observe from an extreme distance.

 A little disappointing to say the least.

That said, I still think  The Martian is a brilliant piece of writing. The humor and voice alone makes it worth the read. If you aren't aware, it was self-published in 2011 and recently has been thrust into the main stream. An amazing accomplishment and I tip my hat to Mr. Weir, writer to writer on that account. Well done, sir. Well done.

What to know: There is a lot of swearing in this book. Admittedly, I'd be swearing quite a bit too if faced with grizzly death on an alien world but it must be noted for more sensitive readers. There is implication of a sexual relationship and mention of "lovemaking." Mark spends a few lines lamenting the lack of women on Mars but nothing untoward.
   

Thursday, September 24, 2015

TIME STREAM

Another bit of Destiny fan fiction. Image courtesy of Bungie.


Mother tied my wrist to the pole.

Father covered my eye and put the knife between my teeth.

Together they pushed my coracle into the Time Stream.

They did not speak. It was the way.

In darkness I spun, slowly swirled by the ceaseless current. Blind I worked the oar, the feeling the occasional scrape of the smooth sandstone banks of the river against the wood. I am a desert creature. I fear water as much as I love it. My heartbeat thudded against my breast bone, a fist pounding for escape. I ignored it. Turning, pulling, pushing, lifting the oar as I'd been taught, I  gradually slowed and then stopped my spin.


And the current carried me towards my destiny.

I felt the light shift from red and gold to shadowed blue. The air cooled. Echoes closed in around me. And the voices began to whisper. She lies. She lies. She lies. She is death. She is doom. She hungers for ruin. Do not listen. No one can step without creating the paradox. You will end all things in all times.

I shivered under the assault of the cold words of those who had gone before or would go and who failed our goddess. I bit down on the blade in my jaws. I would not fail. I would not listen, not to those faithless lost forever in the past and the future. I would not be swayed. I would succeed.

The light shifted again to red and gold--deeper and darker than before, as if the light were old, weak from fighting its way down into the great canyon.

"Remove your eye covering," the voice rang in my mind from across the chasm of time itself. 

I took the knife from between my teeth. "I dare not. To look on you is to be lost."

"You are already lost. Now you must find thyself. I am thy anchor."

With trembling hands I lifted the cloth from my eye. I drifted in a vast round chamber without entrance or exit. The river still flowed, looping perpetually around a small slick island of stone. A towering dead tree reached up towards the shaft of orange light that trickled down through the curved ribbons of stone forming the ceiling. And seated beneath the tree, she sat. She looked like me, long limbed, and narrow faced, her single eye covered in a cloth of tattered red. The frill on her head stood out in a wide fan crowning her beauty. But where my skin was mottled brown and rough, hers was smooth and glowing, palest blue. Tentacles of light coming form her back wound their way up and around the tree's dead branches. With one hand she held an orb of pure white light which she caressed absently with the other.

As I drifted on the endless river's current, somehow she remained facing me though she did not move. The world moved beneath her.

"I saw your heart in the Passage. It is pure. But your mind... What a lovely mind."

I could not speak in response.

"Others have come and failed, but you do not doubt you will be worthy."

"None serve thee as faithfully as I."

"You are obedient, utterly and completely."

"Yes."

"Prove it."

"Anything!"

Her tentacles unwound from the tree and slowly she stood, moving towards me without step or stride.

"I see thy knife. Plunge it into thy belly."


Another might have faltered, might have questioned. But not I. I cut my hand free from the oar, then taking the hilt with both hands, I gazed into that lovely god-face. With all my strength, I rammed the knife into my guts. Pain, red, breathtaking and horrible filled me. My white blood gushed, filling the time stream's course with milky clouds. My savaged guts threatened to burst forth. My legs weakened, but I forced them to hold my dying body up. She had not told me to fall.

She smiled at me, amused. "You are dying, mortal thing."

"Yes. For you."

"Do you see me?"

"Only you."

"No. Do you see me?"

I shook my head not understanding. Again the smile and then the light in her flesh bled away. All she was drew inward, leached away by a roaring, hungering darkness. My eye widened at the transformation and the understanding. Here she was. Here was her true form, more beautiful and terrifying than anything I might have imagined.

"I see you! I see you!"

She became the vessel of glowing pale flesh again, close and smiling, caressing the orb of light.

"Good."

She thrust the light into my bloody wound.

Pain. Pain. Pain.

I screamed as I was remade. Screamed until my voice was torn away and replaced. And then there was nothing. No pain. No fear. No doubt. Only certainty in my creator.

I looked down on my new flesh. My body had become crystal and alloy. I could see and hear and sense things moments before I had not known existed. I could feel particles of time drifting through the air, sparking against my armored skin.

"You shall vex the universe," she said.

The Time Stream opened and I was rushing away from her.

"Go, my servant," my goddess shouted. "Time is yours to command. Remake thy people to perfection as I have remade you. Teach the universe fear! Go Aethon and do not fail me! Against you, the Light cannot prevail."

Liked this story? Check out my other Destiny themed fiction

THE FIRST WARLOCK 
LAST GUARDIAN STANDING
WHAT AM I
 
~SJA

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

SHADEM



The story goes that the first golem rose from the stones of a blood soaked battlefield. The blood of the first Shadem’s kin. The blood of her father and mother. They say the murderers of her clan came for her and that the earth itself rose up to save the girl, that it took on the shape of a warrior twenty feet tall., that it didn't just kill them. It destroyed them. 

I believe that part. 

I’ve seen what your run-of-the-mill eight foot golem can do under the command of a kid so grief stricken that they lose themselves in the rage. It’s not pretty.

Some stories say the Shadem was born on that battlefield that day, that the new born cried out and the earth answered. But that doesn’t make sense to me. You must have conscious thought to raise a golem. It’s like… how to explain this? It is like realizing that you have an extra limb—No!—a whole extra body connected to you that... that has fallen asleep. You focus, you scream at the thing to move but its nothing but numbness and prickles. 

That’s why I don’t think a baby raised the first golem. They can’t even control the limbs they can feel. But a kid, one who’s five or six, that’s different. At that age you’re aware of everything around you and if the first Shadem was powerful enough to raise one on her first try she’d have long been aware of the great stone body sleeping beneath her feet.

Kid must have had a shock when that thing first rose. Even when you’ve been prepared for it like I was, it’s terrifying and exhilarating. Oh Great Creator! That feeling when the earth beneath your feet first twitches at your command! The only thing that compares is when you see it rise.

Everyone’s is different. Some are similar but they’re none of them the same. Mine—Aru—is a towering brute with a sort of hook-beaked bird head and massive hands that practically drag on the ground. I like him. He’s scary as an avalanche coming straight for you. I’ll be sad when he goes.

They all go sooner or later, around the time boys start getting wispy beards and girls start getting curves. No one knows why. They say it’s an innocence thing—like being able to ride a unicorn or something stupid like that. But I don’t think innocence has nothing to do with commanding these behemoths of stone. I know, because I’m no innocent. I’m paid well to set Aru against a clan’s enemies. I’ve seen him covered in the blood and gore of pulped warriors. I’ve set him to fight other golems, shattering stone and earth until only he remains and the poor Shadem who’s lost the golem, lays twitching in the dirt in shock, like a someone who’s had his arms ripped off. A Shadem that loses a golem usually doesn’t survive.

No. Innocence has nothing to do with being a Shadem.

Liked this? Writers live and die on word of mouth so please share or follow or join my mailing list. See the top right of this page.

~SJA

Far, Far Away - Review

From the Publisher: It says quite a lot about Jeremy Johnson Johnson that the strangest thing about him isn't even the fact his mother and father both had the same last name. Jeremy once admitted he's able to hear voices, and the townspeople of Never Better have treated him like an outsider since. After his mother left, his father became a recluse, and it's been up to Jeremy to support the family. But it hasn't been up to Jeremy alone. The truth is, Jeremy can hear voices. Or, specifically, one voice: the voice of the ghost of Jacob Grimm, one half of the infamous writing duo, The Brothers Grimm.

Jacob watches over Jeremy, protecting him from an unknown dark evil whispered about in the space between this world and the next. But when the provocative local girl Ginger Boultinghouse takes an interest in Jeremy (and his unique abilities), a grim chain of events is put into motion. And as anyone familiar with the Grimm Brothers know, not all fairy tales have happy endings...


If you haven't already figured it out, Far, Far Away by author Tom McNeal is a modern fairy tale. I must say it's a good one, but perhaps not for the reasons you might think.  The book is beautifully written with language that creates images without having to describe them, painting landscapes and settings across your mind with just a handful of choice words. The characters are simply beautifully crafted, well written and deeply likable. They are, in fact, what pulls you through the plot. I could not help but want to know what happens to each of these characters. The minor as well as major.

Technically, this book shouldn't be any good. According to agents, editors, publishers, teachers, how-to books and mostly my dubious eye Far, Far Away is a mess. It's a genre conundrum. It's not scifi. It's not fantasy. It's not a fairy tale retelling. It's not a mystery and it's not literary. It might kind of fit on the shelf next to Neil Gaiman's work but only just. It's made up of bits and pieces of each of these genres without belonging to any of them.


Structurally, the inciting incident is "late". The characters have only tenuous motivations until the later part of the book. There are large chunks of exposition. Characters, and character backgrounds are intricately detailed and then never really returned to. There is no villain, no one to really struggle against, for much of the book. The main character changes partway through and the end... well, I won't spoil that because despite all these things done "wrong" this book is good. Sooooooo good.

I cannot emphasize the goodness enough.

What to know: There is a tiny smattering of language throughout the book but nothing more than a PG rating. Sex and various body functions exists in this world are never more than alluded to. The book gets quite dark and grim towards the end, enough so that I wouldn't recommend it for young, sensitive readers. Younger teens who aren't easily spooked and older teens will greatly enjoy the read.

Far, Far Away is an inspiration to me. As a writer myself, I too often feel the enormous press of the arbitrary rules created by non-writers on my art form. It reminds me that there aren't rules in art. There are concepts that can make art more compelling, more sell-able but there aren't rules. VanGogh's works are technical garbage compared to the perfect detail of a DaVinci but they are both beautiful, moving and masterpieces in their own rights. Seeing everything done "wrong" and the resulting book still be so undeniably good has earned Far, Far Away a space on my must read shelf.

Liked this? Writers live and die on word of mouth so please share or follow or join my mailing list. See the top right of this page.
 
~SJA

Images of Van Gogh's "Wheat Field with Cypresses"and Da Vinci's "The Head of the Virgin in Three-Quarter View Facing Right" courtesy of metmusuem.org

Thursday, July 30, 2015

WAKING

Seventy-six woke to a world of red and black. A world of cold and fear and pulsing darkness. And for the first time ever, he woke alone.

He sprang from his crystal pillar. All down the resting chamber the eyes throbbed red. Red as blood. Red as pain and anger. Red. Everything else was dark. The pillar lights, the walkways, the overheads. That could only mean one thing:

A call for help, and no one to answer.

Fallen Guardian.

"KIT!" he shouted. At last light. It leaped from the floor encasing him in armor and weapons of glass and energy. Information glyphs winked in patters in his helmet's faceplate as he ran for the Gate room. A call for help had come through containing all the proper key phrases in the proper order. But it had come through almost twenty-five years ago.

"That can't be right." He checked again. Twenty-five years. Someone had delayed delivery of the call somehow. "Why...?" His feet suddenly stopped, noticing something strange before his mind did. The Girl. Her pillar was empty. For a moment he stared in uncomprehending stillness. She shouldn't be out. She couldn't be out, not if he was... A brief instant of warm hope flashed through him.

A wave of icy panic scoured it from his chest.

The other pillars. They were empty too. Seventy-five--Xian or seventy-four--Amon. The Girl. Seventy-two.

Forcing his feet to move, he staggered down to the tunnel. Seventy-one. Seventy. They were all empty! He ran. His feet pounded the stones. His heart fluttered wildly, a desperate bird trying to escape the cage of his chest. He skidded to a halt. No. Not all the pillars were empty. After fifty-two--Kona--the guardians were present. He did a quick count. Twenty-four of the others--the Girl included--they were gone, gone, gone.

This is wrong. This is all wrong!

He ran on. The control stones in the walls finally re-lit. Then the whole of the Citadel blazed to life.
 
His head spun. His helmet stubbornly told him to go to the Gate. To answer the call. It was his sacred duty. He blinked the messages away searching through the glyphs and codes. There! Another call! And another. Forty message in less than ten years, then the time delay gap.

The glyphs went red in his vision. Another message, freshly delivered, this one only twenty-four years old. Then another. Another. Another. They stacked up before his eyes. Always the same. Always proper. Always from the past, unanswered for years.

"They kept calling. Long after the Guardians quit answering," Seventy-six muttered. "Why?"

Only two answers: A great danger. Or a trap.

He made his way quickly thought the passages, down, down to the very lowest sections of the citadel where the weight of the great structure could almost be felt, pressing down, with smothering presence. Here all the tubes and tunnels and lights led, feeding into the slick black slab of the Gate. The glyphs in his faceplate turned green at last--content that he was finally in the right place.

He paused before the smooth stone and stood for a long time, uncertain. None of the others had returned. It seemed unlikely he would. Fear rose up dark, and sticky cold within him.

"I don't want to die."

The Girl's face came suddenly into his mind. Years ago she had stood there before the gate, perhaps struggling with the same fears. Knowing that beyond the Gate death, after so many long centuries might await. And she had stepped through. She had been brave, dutiful. A true guardian.

"I will strive to be like her," he whispered. Then straightening, he ordered the Gate with all the command he could muster, "OPEN."

The slick black surface of the stone warmed to radiant white, filling the chamber, the air, his vision and mind with burning brightness. And in the space of a breath was beyond the Citadel.

Seventy-six stood on a vast and shattered red plane. The altar stone was cracked and blackened, the pillars toppled. Craters some big enough to swallow Seventy-six several times over, peppered the red ground. Their edges had softened with years of wind a rain but the clouded glass glittered in pools and shards in and around them, the evidence of heat great enough to melt the sand. Tumbled stones and splintered pillars jutted from the ground like the bones of dead things.

No trees. No grass. No life.

"What happened?"

The wind hissed through the sand, mocking him.

In the distance something flashed with solar brilliance. He sprang into the air and an instant later alighted upon the horizon beside a row of tall posts fashioned like spears from gray metal. Atop each faintly glowing with the remnants of reawakened power were...

He counted quickly. Twenty-two shimmering helmets. Guardian's helmets. Fury reconfigured his armor to Assault Mode.

"If she is alive, I will find her. And if she is dead..." He spun, seeking an opponent, a target, but there were none within view. He brandished his fists and weapons deployed from his armor, ready to strike. "There shall be a reckoning! Hear me! There shall be a reckoning time itself shall never forget!"

Liked this? Don't miss the first part THE GIRL IN THE GLASS.

~SJA